Can a horror film stumble over its own logic but still be effective? In the case of “Sinister,” yes.
“Sinister” stars Ethan Hawke, an actor who elevates every movie he’s in, as Ellison, a true crime writer desperate for a hit. He had one ten years ago, but since then has written only pale shadows of his masterpiece. He’s so desperate, he’s willing to move into the house in which a quadruple homicide has just taken place. “Sinister” opens with an 8mm short of four members of a family of five hanging from a tree in the backyard, and then segues to Ellison moving in his family.
The movie loses its footing with regard to logic when it comes to the family. Ellison has a wife and two kids, as well as a history of buying houses near the crime scene about which he’s writing. Fed up, his wife asks, “Did you move us a couple of houses down from another place where people were murdered?” Ellison is honest when he says “No.”
Soon after moving in, Ellison finds a box containing four 8mm movie reels and a film projector in the attic. Curious, he watches one. It starts out showing the previous owners of the house enjoying time together in the yard but then abruptly cuts to the hangings. Shocked, but intrigued because he’s stumbled onto a bigger meal ticket than he’d imagined, Ellison also watches the other movies, each of which is more shocking than the last and all of which contain a bizarre symbol.
Then things start going bump in the night and Ellison begins to mentally draw a line that connects the victims. When he chats with an occult expert to find out more, he learns the symbol is that of Bughuul, a pagan deity whose MO involves murdering entire families except for one child, who he takes into the netherworld.
At that point, would you A) yell at your spouse for sensing something is wrong, or B) pack up the family and leave? Ellison chooses poorly and implausibly continues to dig long after any sane person would have bolted. Fortunately, Hawke holds the movie together with his persuasive performance of a man determined to carve out a legacy for himself. Perhaps the scariest thing about “Sinister” is its exploration of human obsession.
Despite this flaw in logic, “Sinister” got under my skin and hooked me. The 8mm clips, which use the most disturbing music I’ve heard in a movie, were clearly designed to mess with the viewer’s psyche, while other scenes set up ridiculously successful jump scares. But it was the monster the filmmakers created, and the way they slowly bring him to life, that unsettled me the most. If you have a habit of watching scary scenes through your fingers, don’t waste your money on “Sinister.” You’ll miss too much.
Although I singled out Hawke’s performance, all of the actors did good work. I especially liked the guy who played “Deputy So-and-So,” a local cop who loves Ellison’s writing and helps with the investigation because he wants his name on the page of acknowledgements when the new book is published. He tows a comedic line between dewy-eyed fan and officer of the law that works as well as anything in the movie.
I also like how “Sinister” allows us to get to know the family and begin to care about them before the spooky hijinks begin. Late in the movie, when the wife tells Ellison, “I am your purpose and the kids are your legacy,” I agreed and wanted to reach into the screen and shake Ellison awake.
Speaking of reaching into the screen... Nope... I’ll leave that for you to experience.
If you like good horror, “Sinister” should satisfy. Just don’t blame me if you find yourself staying up at night to keep from replaying certain scenes in your head as you lie in the dark. For me, writing this review has not helped. I keep wondering what I’ll see in the shadows when I turn out the lights.
Rated R for disturbing and violent images and terror. Three stars out of four. Email David Laprad at firstname.lastname@example.org.